Three Umpires
25 July 2022

Karl Weick’s “Three Umpires” Metaphor: How Systemic Design is Essential in Addressing Complex Security Challenges

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Original blog post can be found here:

This is a section from some design educational material the author is developing for a military design and innovation course. All content reflects the opinion of the author and in no way reflects any endorsement or stated position beyond that of this author. Follow me on Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn and Instagram to see more content like this, snapshots of things I am reading and researching, new design news, podcasts, articles, videos, and more.

“The first [umpire] says, “I calls ’em like they is!”; the second, “I calls ’em like I sees ‘em!”; and the third, “There ain’t nothing there until I calls ‘em!” — Karl Weick[1]

Design, as something involving both scientific rationalization, processes, skills and experience as well as artistry is not understood by following a checklist or following some recipe. Unlike planning where a military operator seeks to gain greater compliance and efficiency with a known, sequential and established process that moves incrementally toward a predetermined goal- designers are innovating toward the unknown, the unrealized, and the never-before-imagined. When militaries, governments and associated security/safety organizations request innovation and change, they run into expectation management issues because more often than not, those institutions assume said creativity and critical thinking ought to “bolt onto” existing practices… to make design “step one of the existing planning process” and sandwiched into a doctrinal publication.[2] To quote Donald Schon on this paradox of science and artistry wrapped in a blanket of improvisational, ‘knowing-in-action’ act of discovery: “each of these approaches [of coaching, leading and learning design in action] calls for a different sort of improvisation, presents different orders of difficulty, and lends itself to different contextual conditions. Design methods for true complex security challenges simply cannot be articulated in some instrumented, sequential and easily repeatable process.

This means that while some aspects of any given design methodology will appear to be sequential, occurring in discrete steps along a formal process, much of how security oriented design is done contextually, through ways that are incompatible with following some step-by-step process. Innovation will often appear ‘in the moment’, with spirals of action, reflection, reframing, and moving from divergence to convergence (and back-forth repeatedly) which may seem nonlinear, moving in a flow that may drift well outside intended process boundaries. What was the original goal might be quickly abandoned, with entirely new stepping stones discovered that, if explored creatively by the curious designers, might lead to entirely different destinations.[3] Here, only the cunning designers might envision entirely dissimilar futures where such novel ideas might provide radically new advantages that will frustrate and confound adversaries. Again, the last place a working design methodology will end up is after it is no longer of any significant value to the organization- where it might be stuffed and mounted on the wall in a doctrinal publication versus reflecting what actually is being done in the real world.

There are currently multiple design methodologies from the Israeli ‘Systemic Operational Design’ that is now on its 3rd variation in 2022[4], to U.S. Army Design Methodology,[5] the U.S. Marine Corps’ ‘Marine Corp Design Methodology’[6], that of the Canadian Forces College’s ‘Mixed Methods for Security Design’ educational approach[7], and while I ran the design facilitation and education at the Joint Special Operations University for all of the U.S. Special Operations Command, I steered the methodology towards a hybrid of Israeli SOD, military sociology, multiple futures, and human-centered commercial inspired components.[8] There are naval units pursuing SCRUM design, Air Force organizations investing in Agile and human-centered design adaptations, and many more variations out there in experimentation and testing for how they might enhance and enlighten security organizations addressing wickedly complex challenges.[9]

As designers, regardless of methodology, attempt to move away from convergent thinking and analytically optimized, instrumented methodologies, they aim away from the institutionalized norms and, when possible, deconstruct and challenge the most cumbersome of those barriers to change. Design employs divergent thinking, innovation, and transformative opportunities through systemic change), and a design team if given sufficient leeway will begin to explore outside their own institutionalized frame limits.

This is where doctrine, accepted theory and practices all cease to be influential, and where alternative ideas and war frames might generate entirely paradoxical, contrary positions on the very same things, events and patterns of human conflict. In fact, a design team must carefully reflect upon, and then clarify their own dominant war frame (social paradigm) so that they can understand not just what their organization does for warfare, but how and why they pursue such framings at the deliberate expense of alternative ones. To really accomplish this, a design methodology must be able to frame one’s ‘self’ as well as valid ‘others/alien’ frames within a complex security context. The United States does not view warfare the same as a drug cartel might (and this requires a reframing that non-state actors in illicit commodity distribution can ‘wage war’), nor does China, Russia, or that of a domestic terrorism group such as the Earth Liberation Front from the Pacific Northwest and eco-terror activities of the 1990s. Unfortunately, most modern military forces assume a single and overarching ‘war paradigm’ to impose not just for themselves, but upon any and all adversaries, conflicts and contexts in universal, natural-science inspired motives. By default, many military design methods subscribe to a singular war paradigm that directs the planning methods as well as how to design, and expects operators in both areas to project their own institutionalized frames upon every possible security context.

While alternative views and war frames may not ultimately change the strategic or operationalized design that the team produces for their organization, taking the time to explore and critically reflect on these frames provides significant advantage. Consider two adversaries in a conflict. One attempts to assert their worldview upon all others, insisting that reality must be understood through what they believe is the superior or even ultimate way for all humans to explain and understand warfare. They commit all of their time and energy toward mastering the application of their single frame in combat, seeking greater and greater efficiency of that single process. The other adversary seeks this systemic approach where they deliberately consider the limits of their chosen frame and the possibilities of how their rival might see, understand and act in reality differently. Explaining why this ‘systemic gaze’ is necessary in security design is a difficult challenge for design facilitators and educators. However, there is a nice and quick metaphor to employ here to break the ice. First, one must illuminate why one adversary in this example is at a profound conceptual disadvantage, and the other taking a systemic view of a complex system has at least a greater chance of considering beyond the other designer.

The designer seeking a ‘systemic gaze’ provides only one adversary the ability to conceptualize what are the war frame overlaps (things shared or in common), war frame paradoxes (oppositional or incommensurate positions on the same things), and most significantly for designers, the war frame interplay potential.[10] Interplay is the emergent opportunities, risks and consequences that only a designer able to consider and experiment with multiple framings within a complex, dynamic system can introduce through prototypes and design action. The way to illuminate this difference is how designer and sociologist Karl Weick relays a story of three umpires: “The first says, “I calls ’em like they is!”; the second, “I calls ’em like I sees ‘em!”; and the third, “There ain’t nothing there until I calls ‘em!” [11]

Weick is revealing how different social paradigms shape how differently people can seek to understand reality. In this case, the first umpire is demonstrating what is called ‘technical rationalism’ which essentially means that a person believes that complex reality can be scientifically and objectively broken down into isolated, manageable chunks to conduct experiments and unlock principles and laws. Once done, they can reassemble the whole so that reality can be more ordered, stable and at times predicted. Such an umpire will, using clear and objective judgement make the calls on what pitches occur in a manner that is proven and can be scientifically measured qualitatively.

The second umpire appears to introduce their own human subjectivity into complex reality, presenting what sociologists term ‘interpretivism’ which involves both the natural ordered complex world with the socially constructed, contextually significant one of humanity. This is where the famous definition of pornography was uttered by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 with: “I know it when I see it.” Such a framing of complex reality prevents the first umpire’s rendering of that same world from functioning the same way… an umpire must see within the game and thus by introducing human judgment and beliefs, a qualitative aspect of reality joins the first umpire’s sole reliance on quantitative, analytical optimization of the world. The third umpire presents a different interpretation of reality that pairs more with postmodern philosophy such as Jean Baudrillard, whose work would inspire the popular Matrix sci-fi movies. Baudrillard and other postmodernists posit that humans socially construct reality in a way that can entirely detach and morph into something unrelated to the physical ordered world- where the umpire insists that there is not even a baseball game in reality unless he believes it is so.

Regardless of which umpire you might endorse as the best way to approach reality (and complex warfare), the designer able to frame which of these might be their dominant frame, as well as which of these could be how other adversaries, competitors and key stakeholders are using is paramount for design activities. By framing differences, overlaps and where interplay exists as a potential for design innovation across multiple social frames is where the systemic advantage lies for the design team able and willing to embark upon such thinking. The graphic above depicting Weick’s metaphor shows how the systemic designer can move beyond the single-frame perspective of any one of the three umpires to look at the larger system as well as gain valuable perspectives on designing within the tensions, overlap and interplay between the different frames in a complex reality that supports all of them and more. The red text areas are all of the additional systemic perspectives available to designers that synthesize beyond a single war paradigm construct that is typical of traditional military strategy and operational planning.

It is in the red areas illustrated above that systemic designers gain advantage that is impossible to realize or access from a single-frame designer gaze. The single designer gaze can only engage from that one umpire’s framing of reality. Granted, many would align modern military decision-making methods and doctrine to the red sphere on top where an objective, instrumented and mechanistic/reductionist mode of technical positivism seeks to render all of war and warfare as an objective, analytical affair. Perhaps few stakeholders in any security conflict sit in the yellow sphere that reflects some postmodern, radical humanist or other sort of social paradigm that considers war and warfare quite differently- but only a systemic gaze by a designer thinking in multiple war paradigms has the ability to explore overlap, interplay and tensions between these. It is here were the seeds of innovation exist, and those institutional boundaries that maintain a sphere act as conceptual barriers to all operators within it. One shall not step outside the conceptual limits, or risk being marginalized, alienated, labeled a heretic or even banished for daring to question the war paradigm maintained and protected by the organization. Perhaps this is what Weick’s umpire metaphor offers best- that the designer wittingly and willingly able to frame beyond the single structured view gains advantage…but with it, additional new challenges to bring such radical ideas back into the institution for implementation and acceptance.

[1] Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner, 222.

[2] Grigsby et al., “Integrated Planning: The Operations Process, Design, and the Military Decision Making Process”; Graves and Stanley, “Design and Operational Art: A Practical Approach to Teaching the Army Design Methodology”; Grome, Crandall, and Rasmussen, “Incorporating Army Design Methodology into Army Operations: Barriers and Recommendations for Facilitating Integration.”

[3] Chia and Holt, Strategy without Design: The Silent Efficacy of Indirect Action; Chia, “Reflections: In Praise of Silent Transformation- Allowing Change Through ‘Letting Happen’”; Chia, “A ‘Rhizomic’ Model of Organizational Change and Transformation: Perspective from a Metaphysics of Change”; Stanley and Lehman, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective.

[4] Graicer, “Self Disruption: Seizing the High Ground of Systemic Operational Design (SOD)”; Graicer, “Beware of the Power of the Dark Side: The Inevitable Coupling of Doctrine and Design.”

[5] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Army Design Methodology (ATP 5–0.1).

[6] U.S. Marine Corps, MCWP 5–10: Marine Corps Planning Process; U.S. Marine Corps, MAGTF Staff Training Program Division, Marine Corps Design Methodology.

[7] Mitchell, “Stumbling into Design: Action Experiments in Professional Military Education at Canadian Forces College”; “Canadian Forces College 2018–19 National Security Programme DS/CF 592- Modern Comprehensive Operations and the Complexity of Contemporary Conflicts”; Beaulieu-Brossard, “Encountering Nomads in Israel Defense Forces and Beyond.”

[8] Stanczak, Talbott, and Zweibelson, “Designing at the Cutting Edge of Battle: The 75th Ranger Regiment’s Project Galahad”; Zweibelson, “Special Operations and Design Thinking: Through the Looking Glass of Organizational Knowledge Production”; Zweibelson, “Change Agents for the SOF Enterprise: Design Considerations for SOF Leadership Confronting Complex Environments”; Zweibelson, “An Application of Theory: Second Generation Military Design on the Horizon.”

[9] Wrigley, Mosely, and Mosely, “Defining Military Design Thinking: An Extensive, Critical Literature Review”; Jackson, “Towards a Multi-Paradigmatic Methodology for Military Planning: An Initial Toolkit”; Zweibelson, “The Multidisciplinary Design Movement: A Frame for Realizing Industry, Security, and Academia Interplay.”

[10] Schultz and Hatch, “Living with Multiple Paradigms: The Case of Paradigm Interplay in Organizational Culture Studies”; Lewis and Grimes, “Metatriangulation: Building Theory From Multiple Paradigms”; Ritzer, Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science.

[11] Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner, 222.

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